What Israelis Need to Know about US Immigration Reform

Many people believe US immigration reform is about dealing with the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, most of whom are from Mexico, Central and South America. While that is undoubtedly a driving force behind reform, it’s not the only issue. Other possible reforms could affect Israelis seeking to visit, work or immigrate to the United States.

Visiting the United States

However, there are efforts in the US Congress to pass legislation authorizing Israel’s qualification.

Under current law, Israeli tourists to the US first must obtain a visa from a US embassy. This process can take significant time, costs a fee that is non-refundable even if the individual is denied a visa, and forces one to prove that he or she will return to their home country in a timely fashion. This latter requirement can be particularly burdensome for an unmarried, young person. There exists under American law the opportunity for a country to participate in the Visa Waiver program. This program allows foreigners to enter the US for a short period without the requirement of first obtaining a visa. For a country to qualify, it must first meet certain requirements including having a very low level of residents who overstay their visas in the US. Currently, Israel doesn’t qualify for this program. However, there are efforts in the US Congress to pass legislation authorizing Israel’s qualification. Typically, the Executive Branch of the US government will oppose this type of legislation because they prefer individual countries qualify for such a program through administrative procedures. Thus, the chance of such legislation becoming law on its own is small. However, when comprehensive legislation is being considered in Congress on related issues, such as immigration reform, often individual members of Congress, particularly in the Senate, will add what is known as “riders” to the major legislation that deals with smaller and more specific issues. If immigration reform is seriously considered, there is a chance of Israel being added to the Visa Waiver Program as an amendment to the legislation.

Temporary Work Visas

One type of temporary work visa available under current US law is known as the H1B visa, which enables those foreigners with specific academic credentials, mainly a university degree, to receive a work visa from a specific employer. It is an employer initiated visa and is mostly used to bring engineers, computer specialists, and scientists to American businesses. The problem with the program is the legislative annual cap on the number of such visas available, currently 65,000. The US government’s fiscal year begins on October 1. Typically, the new fiscal year H1B visas become available on the preceding April 1. But because of the cap, attorneys who work with various businesses and who apply for these foreign workers put together applications for them in advance of April 1. Then at midnight, April 1, the attorney offices bombard the relevant immigration offices with online applications. Within one day the 65,000 visa cap is usually reached. Business leaders have been pressuring Congress for years to raise the cap. Again, immigration reform is likely to address this issue. This is very significant to Israelis who currently work in the high-tech field. Many more such visas could well become available through immigration reform. To temporarily work in advanced US businesses could be very attractive to many Israelis.

Foreign Students

In a related issue, thousands of foreign students attend U.S. universities every year, including graduate programs where students receive Masters’ and Doctorate degrees. They enter as part of a generous student visa program. Yet, as soon as they receive their final degree, they either must depart the country, compete with the limited number of temporary professional visas as described above, or attempt to immigrate (becoming eligible for a green card) which is an arduous, lengthy and expensive project. Other nations have taken advantage of this situation by offering easy entry into their countries for foreign students educated in the US, and thus many of these graduates end up in Canada, Australia, China, and Chile. President Obama’s draft proposal for immigration reform includes a provision authorizing a green card for a foreign student receiving a Master’s degree or higher. Again, this creates possibilities for Israeli families who send their children to US higher education institutions.

Green Cards

The phrase “green card” means obtaining permanent resident status in the United States, something comparable to Israel’s Teudat Zahut. There are numerous ways to qualify for a green card in the US, but the two primary means is through close family relationship or through employment immigration. The problem is there is a legislative cap of 140,000 employment immigrant visas every year and close family members who join a qualified employee are counted towards the numerical cap. The number hasn’t changed since 1990, and since that time the American economy has been completely transformed, especially in the area of technology. An employer can find the “ideal” employee, be willing to incur the time and cost of petitioning the Immigration Service for the employee, only to find that there are no longer any available visas. A proposal being floated as part of the reform package is to raise the caps on so-called STEM workers, those involved in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. Again, Israelis who work in these fields could more easily be eligible for this type of immigrant visa. In addition, there are proposals to create a new “start-up” visa that would make a foreign entrepreneur eligible for a green card if he or she started a new business that ultimately employed a certain number of American workers. Currently, US law provides for something similar called an investor visa. However, investor visas are limited to those individuals who invest at least $1 million into a commercial enterprise that leads to the creation of ten full-time positions within two years. The process is complicated and self- limiting due to the requirements. The start-up visa proposals are more flexible and likely to target foreigners currently in the United States in either a temporary work visa category or a student visa. As discussed above, foreigners with temporary work visas or student visas have very limited opportunities to gain permanent residence in the United States under current law. A start-up visa proposal could change that.

Administrative Backlogs

Finally, even when visas are available for either foreign workers or foreign family members, there is typically a significant backlog in visa processing due to an inadequate number of Immigration Service employees dedicated to handling the cases. Most of the delay was due to insufficient staffing in the agencies. Whatever legislation does pass, this issue of funding and staffing will either help the reform process or destroy it. As an example, there are currently 324,000 immigration cases in the US judicial system. These are cases that were unsuccessfully handled at the administrative level. President Obama’s reform plan recognizes the problem and calls for additional immigration judges, but this doesn’t resolve the typical administrative delays of most visa and immigrant petitions. Regardless of what’s in the final package for immigration reform, it’s a fact that there will be millions more petitioners for some form of status. Without significantly increasing funding for the federal agencies, the backlogs will only get worse. And this is during a time when there is pressure to reduce federal government spending. Nevertheless, many Israelis who desire to visit, work or live in the United States could be affected by this new legislation.

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